GRAHAM Y. BRISBEN
candidate for 2019 OAK pARK VILLAGE TRUSTEE
1. What motivates you to seek this office? What skills, experiences, and perspectives would you bring to the Board, and why would those contributions be valuable to the Village of Oak Park?
I am motivated to pursue board service as a way to contribute to the greater good of my community, and particularly to help advance our community’s values, affordability, and opportunity for people from all walks of life to live within and benefit from Oak Park.
I bring a skill set of prior experience (District 97, 2013-2017) and a unique approach to board service. My background with D97 gave me a strong firsthand understanding of how the taxing bodies interact, how governmental finances work within our particular circumstances of Cook County and Illinois, and multiple touch points through liaison and committee roles covering finance, facilities, D200, IGOV, and the Collaboration for Early Childhood.
My D97 experience also helped form my specific approach to board service, which is centered on leveraging facts and evidence plus building relationships and alignment to help create a high functioning board that is able to identify and prioritize the most important issues, and actually get something positive accomplished on those issues.
I believe these skills, experience, and approaches are needed at the Village. We have precarious balancing act to manage between many competing interests, and sound, data-driven governance that is more important than ever.
2. What do you believe makes an effective Trustee?
An effective trustee follows the facts, listens carefully and widely, recognizes the role of the board vs. administration, is collaborative, pragmatic, and capable of building productive relationships across people and groups who may not always agree. In addition, an effective trustee should be motivated by evidence-based public policy that helps the greatest number of people.
I think these traits are particularly important now due to the taxing bodies’ historic difficulties in collaboration. If elected I will leverage my extensive relationships with the other taxing bodies to bring about more effective collaboration and analysis of budgeting from a village-wide standpoint. I believe the Village Board has a logical leadership role to play here.
3. What is your understanding of the purpose of the Village Board? What do you see as the appropriate relationship between the Village President/Mayor, the Board of Trustees, and Village staff?
Under our village manager form of government the village board sets policy, budgets, and employs the Village Manager. Staff reports to the village manager, but I think trustees should have routine interaction with department heads as part of various committee roles. This interaction improves trustee understanding of needs and issues relating to the provision of services to the community.
As with any board-CEO relationship, the trustees should have a robust evaluation process for the Village Manager that provides that person with clear goals and feedback.
I view the Village President/Mayor as effectively the board president, but I would like to ensure that whomever is in that role leverages effectively the skills and talents of all of the board members equally.
4. When in your experience have you had to balance competing interests? What process did you use? What did you learn?
Board service is a continuous process of balancing competing interests. At D97 we had the challenge of balancing finite resources and the desire to provide supports and services to not only a growing student body, but also one of widely varying needs.
Perhaps the greatest balancing act we faced was the negotiation of our teacher contract, a 14-month process that resulted in a transformative and sustainable labor agreement. We had to balance the need for fiscal responsibility and sustainability while ensuring that the district would remain an attractive workplace for highly talented teachers, and particularly teachers of color for whom Oak Park is competing along with almost every other progressive community in the country. This was accomplished through deep use of data on comparison districts, financial projections, and enrollment, plus finding creative mechanisms to tie compensation to classroom effectiveness and also account for a multitude of non-financial terms.
One of the key things learned from this experience and others is that it’s critical for a board to align early on a set of goals and priorities that are most essential, and also apply metrics to those priorities. This will help the board keep the bigger goal(s) in mind when weighing competing interests.
5. What does transparency in government mean to you? How would you put it into practice?
I believe in strong adherence to the Open Meetings Act and appreciate that the village already makes vast amounts of information, plus video of board meetings, available on the website. I believe that elected officials should be as accessible as practical to community members through a variety of in-person and virtual channels.
6. As more of our local discourse happens in social media, what is your view on how local elected officials should communicate with and respond to constituents? How will you engage with the breadth of the community, and not just the voices that are loudest or easiest to find?
I would plan to maintain an online presence and be accessible in that way, but I am “old school” and still believe in face-to-face communication. As such, I will be open to meeting with constituents and groups as frequently as my schedule allows.
7. In what ways have you sought to better know and understand the concerns and needs of residents outside your demographic group (specifically the demographic groups of race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status)?
First, my family is ethnically mixed – my wife and children are Latinx. This has given me a firsthand view of my wife’s experience as a woman of color over the 25 years we have known each other. I have witnessed her experiences of both overt and subtle racism. I am also close to her father, who still resides in the Little Village neighborhood where my wife was raised. I am inquisitive by nature and ask a lot of questions of people in one on one situations and from all walks of life to learn about people’s opinions and experiences.
8. To what extent should the Village Board rely on the expertise of its citizen commissions? Do you feel the balance has been correct? What do you see as the appropriate responsibilities of the Village Clerk?
I believe we should do more to leverage the talented and expert citizens of Oak Park who are willing to step up and contribute on various committees. We have under-leveraged those resources, and I am particularly concerned about the Community Relations Committee. I would like to see that committee revitalized to help better inform board members and policies around equity and inclusion. At D97 we made strong use of our citizen committees and I would like to see the village do the same. One way D97 leveraged data and citizen input was to ask our citizen Financial Oversight and Review Committee to provide peer district benchmarks to measure us against. I would like to use similar citizen input to help address village and community-wide fiscal issues.
The office of Village Clerk is one established by statute and given that this is a full time role, accessible to the community during business hours, has a citizen-service focus, and has in our recent history been held by some exceptionally talented and dedicated people, under-utilizing this office is a missed opportunity for our village.
9. Oak Park has a history of racial and ethnic as well as economic diversity. How would you engage marginalized communities in the political process? How can we maintain economic diversity in the Village with rising real estate prices and taxes?
Oak Park’s values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are core components of my platform. Along with better leveraging the CRC, I would like to have a comprehensive affordability strategy that is underpinned by data and targeted toward populations with the greatest need. For example, we have data gaps around affordable housing stock for lower and moderate-income households. It will be essential that we can track total cost of living affordability levels, including housing stock, so we can have SMART goals against which to measure our progress.
Addressing the larger issue of property taxes requires a multi-pronged approach. First, we must acknowledge root cause challenges of inadequate state funding for education and an Oak Park tax base that is overly reliant on residential. We must also address Oak Park’s total expenditures on a village-wide basis and work towards meaningful collaboration that actually delivers savings. My extensive relationships with the other taxing bodies, particularly the schools, will help this. I would also like to see a change to the budgeting process that focuses more on priorities and outcomes, rather than just perpetuating the past year’s budget.
10. How do you define equity? Do you favor implementing a Village-wide equity policy, and if so, what specifics should that policy include? Have recent discussions in the larger community informed or changed your thinking?
My perspectives on equity are influenced in large part by my experience in education. Equity to me is about the deployment of finite resources, and having the will to deploy those resources to those groups and individuals who need them the most. After researching this issue and hearing from trusted advisors, I have included in my platform is the revitalization of the CRC and advancement of the Governing Alliance for Racial Equity tools and model. I am attracted to GARE because 1) the framework, training, and methodologies can be readily adapted and 2) the program has been implemented in over 125 other communities nationwide, which suggests a strong track record.
11. Why have property taxes assessed by the Village (as distinct from other Oak Park taxing bodies) increased so substantially over the past 10-15 years? Can the Village continue without additional tax increases? How?
Reasons for the increases are numerous and varied, particularly given that a 10-15 year horizon covers the great recession. As with the other taxing bodies labor is the largest expense category for the village, and even when head count is reduced, health care costs continue to drive labor costs at a rate higher than inflation. In addition, 40% of the village tax levies goes to the police and fire pensions, which are presently only about 50% funded because of past failures to fund them adequately. As a result, we are playing “catch up” in order to meet state law to be at least 90% funded by 2040.
I believe that with a fact-based, multi-pronged approach as described above that addresses both revenues and expenses, the village could at minimum live within the conditions of PTELL (“tax caps” law), even though as a “home rule” jurisdiction it is not legally required to do so.
12. What impact can a municipality such as Oak Park have on climate change, and how will you prioritize that work among other issues? Do you think Oak Park should implement a Climate Action Plan, and if so, what specific elements should it include?
I was present at the recent board meeting in which a plan to convert to all green energy sources for the village by 2050 was presented. I support that plan, and I think the 2050 timeline is achievable. I have a great deal of professional expertise in energy, including renewables, and I look forward to contributing to that dialogue. I am also interested in furthering village-wide recycling efforts, including an audit of our recyclable and non-recyclable waste streams.
13. Oak Park has seen a number of larger developments in recent years that have changed the physical space, particularly downtown. What is your philosophy toward development and the changes that it brings? What is your ideal vision for future development going forward?
I would like to see a smarter approach to development in which the goals and metrics of the OPEDC are expanded to emphasize growth in the commercial tax base as well as economic development in other areas of Oak Park, such as along North Avenue. I believe that economic development is essential to help expand our commercial tax base and mitigate the property tax pressure on residential.
14. What does affordable housing mean to you? Do you feel that the Village should should work to support housing affordability? If so, what specific policies would you advocate? Would you support an inclusionary zoning ordinance?
Beyond just the HUD definition of affordable housing, per response above I would like to see a comprehensive affordability strategy driven by data that focuses on marginalized populations and lower and moderate income groups. We have many resources and agencies focused on housing, and I would like to see more of those efforts combined in a unified and evidence-based approach. I support an IZO but that’s just one of several tools in the toolbox to achieve this.
15. Describe a specific initiative you would undertake in collaboration with one or more neighboring communities.
I would like to evaluate a joint fire protection district with other jurisdictions.
16. Please list the three largest donors to your campaign by dollar amount contributed.
We have not yet begun to take significant donations. To date I have personally spent about $3,800 on the campaign. Two other donors (Melinda Brisben, my mother, and Oak Park resident and friend Rob Bellmar) have each contributed $100.
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[The above answers were submitted on 2/13/19. For current financial information, please see Graham for Trustee Committee financials at Illinois Sunshine. Illinois Sunshine is also a useful resource for identifying past contributions by individuals to political candidates and committees in Illinois.]
Graham Brisben for Oak Park Village Trustee (candidate Facebook page)
Equity and fact-based governance (WJ 3/26/19)
Oak Park Development Watch candidate questionnaire (Facebook 3/22/19)
Candidate Profile (WJ 3/15/19)
Three candidates stand out (WJ 3/12/19)
Candidate Interview (The Doris Davenport Show livestream 3/7/19)
Graham for Trustee Committee financials (Illinois Sunshine)
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SEOPCO candidate forum (Facebook live 3/19/19)
Bike Walk Oak Park Candidate Survey Results (Facebook 3/17/19)
Talking business at Oak Park trustee candidate forum (WJ 3/15/19)
Arbor West Neighbors: Discussion on aging (Facebook Live 2/25/19)
Taxes front and center at Oak Park trustee debate (WJ 1/15/19)
The campaign trail: Trustee candidates weigh in on Oak Park's tax burden (Oak Leaves 1/11/19)
Business retention, assistance on minds of Oak Park village trustee candidates (Oak Leaves 1/10/19)
Suburban Unity Alliance Village Board Candidate Forum Part 1 | Part 2 (Facebook Live 1/9/19)
Election a go-go (WJ 12/18/19)
Now up to eight in race for Oak Park village board (WJ 11/21/18)